Column: Pay attention to debate concerning MOX plan
A 30-second ad created by an organization called Friends of the Earth portrays supporters of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, also known as MOX, being constructed at the Savannah River Site, SRS as pigs in “lobbyist suits.” That probably tells you all you need to know about Friends of the Earth. Any discussion involving them is likely to end in character assassination and assigning scurrilous motives to their opposition. This time they are after Sen. Lindsey Graham for his support of MOX. Their attempt to make this a political issue is unfortunate because the completion of the MOX project is important to all Americans as it represents the mutually agreed upon method for Russia and the U.S. to eliminate the plutonium from at least 17,000 nuclear weapons. It should not be cast as a liberal, conservative, Republican or Democrat initiative. The project has enjoyed strong bipartisan support in South Carolina and in Congress.
Years ago, a deal was negotiated with the Department of Energy, which was trying to find a place to consolidate the nation’s excess plutonium. At the risk of oversimplification, the deal was this – we (read that as SRS, South Carolina) will take your plutonium and you (Deparment of Energy) will provide the facilities at SRS to process the plutonium and send it on its way out of South Carolina. The deal was struck and the facilities were identified as the MOX plant, $4.8 billion, the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility, $3.2 billion, and the Waste Solidification and Storage Building, $4 million. The total for the three facilities was about $8.4 billion. In the intervening years, the cost of non-nuclear utility construction in the Southeast has increased by about one-third, so the cost of the three facilities might be expected to have increased to about $11.2 billion if they were not nuclear projects. Being nuclear projects makes the cost increases even greater.
Now fast forward to 2013 – the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility was cancelled and alternative ways to accomplish that scope were incorporated into the MOX project, thus increasing the cost of the MOX facility, but decreasing the cost of the overall plutonium elimination project. The new estimate for the MOX facility is about $7.7 billion. This is actually less than the combined estimates for MOX and the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility in 2005.
The Friends of the Earth ad also tries to appeal to a xenophobic attitude toward France as an outline of the country is prominently displayed in bright French flag colors and the claim is made that billions of American taxpayer dollars are flowing to France. The Washington Post thoroughly discredited this assertion and awarded the entire ad “Four Pinocchios” on their fact checking scale. This, the highest level on their prevarication scale is described as telling “whoppers.” It should not surprise anyone that a global company of French origin, AREVA, with experience building and operating MOX fuel fabrication facilities partnered with one of Chicago Bridge and Iron, America’s largest nuclear construction companies, who were competent bidders for the MOX construction project. The ad does not address the 2,000 workers employed on the project who have performed so well and who have internalized the enormous importance of this project. Since only a few are French, we must assume the rest are included among the pigs in lobbyist suits.
It’s time to end the charade. If the MOX project is threatened it will not be because it is too expensive – any alternative will be much more expensive - but rather because plutonium-phobic political ideology has trumped sound science and hard – earned diplomacy. Shame on us if we allow rude behavior, character assassination and false information masquerading as facts to determine the future course of our nation’s plutonium elimination strategy.
Clint Wolfe is the executive director of Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness and formerly chaired the Technical Advisory Panel to the Department of Energy’s Plutonium Focus Area.